‘Tis the season, readers. It’s been a horrible year for most of the planet, but finally, we can all sit back, relax and celebrate that time of year when everyone on Twitter wants you to know who they told Dave Meltzer he should put in his Hall of Fame.
I have never subscribed to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) – a choice in which I feel vindicated every time the topic of sexual abuse in wrestling comes up – so I have no skin in this game. I’m never going to vote. But I am interested in the historiography of professional wrestling and here’s the thing: the WON Hall of Fame isn’t interesting in that respect either. In fact, there is much more to be learned from the WWE Hall of Fame.
Every year WWE hosts a special event at which a few performers from the company’s history are inducted into the Hall of Fame, which the company regularly describes as “the highest honour in sports entertainment” in recognition of the inductee’s “accomplishments” (see this on Beth Phoenix’s profile here). There is no physical hall or even a dedicated webpage. The WWE Hall of Fame is metadata: it is a filter applied to the Superstars list and a webpage devoted to highlights from the annual show.
An audience fills the room, people make speeches, the company celebrates people who have been significant to its history. Nobody really knows who has final say on the decisions, though it’s generally assumed to be Vince McMahon with Triple H’s help and there is every chance it goes through a committee of executives.
The criteria are similarly unclear beyond what makes for good press and an entertaining event. From observation, you must either be on good terms with the company, or willing to reconcile with them; you must either be available to make your own speech or if deceased, have an eloquent relative who can speak for you; someone equally or better-known must be willing to induct you. You can be a celebrity who has appeared at a WWE event and can generate headlines, because this is how WWE positions itself as a fixture of mainstream popular culture. The person who ‘headlines’ your Hall of Fame class will be the most famous, and this will never be the one and only woman in the group.
In the last few years WWE has realised its mistake in being so obvious about its motivations, hence the birth of the Legacy Wing of the Hall of Fame. Essentially, this is a short video clip shown sometime during the main Hall of Fame show allowing the company to induct historically significant figures with the intention of adding ‘credibility’ to the Hall of Fame as a whole. It also adds credibility to the inductees and to WWE in general: Torrie Wilson is placed in the grand tradition of Mildred Burke and Cora Combs, both of whom are Legacy Wingers and thus have biographies on the company website.
Credibility, legacy, heritage: these are the real priorities of the WWE Hall of Fame. The people who are chosen and how they are described speak volumes about how the company is trying to position itself, as a mainstream form of popular entertainment with its own history of heroes and pioneers. Crucially, it positions the company as the arbiter of who is worthy of recognition, even if they never worked for the Fed or retired long before it existed. The Legacy Wing enables WWE to claim the history of wrestling as its own. The Hall of Fame gives expression to the idea that WWE is pro wrestling.
The choice of inductees allows WWE to rewrite its own history at the same time. Take the female inductees: since the so-called “Women’s Evolution” began there has been an effort to create a lineage for the current generation of female talent. #GiveDivasAChance started trending just after WrestleMania in 2015. The next Hall of Fame class included Jacqueline, the first woman of colour to be inducted and a staple of the Attitude Era, a period not known for kindness to female wrestlers. Beth Phoenix was in the 2017 class, having left the company because there were so few opportunities for women in the dog days of 2011 and 2012.
There is a conscious move to induct women from different parts of the company’s history to create an idea of continuity among the female talent. It’s one of the reasons I still think Bull Nakano is an obvious choice. Politically speaking, this shift isn’t just about making sure there’s one woman in every class; if WWE really cared about representation there would be more than that. It is about demonstrating that WWE has always been home to exceptional women, thus re-positioning the company as if it has always given a shit. Focusing on a woman’s achievements saves the company from acknowledging all the ways that it held her back.
WWE’s Hall of Fame tells us how the biggest show in town wants to present itself, and to an extent how it wants to be seen in the grander context of wrestling history. To me, that’s far more useful and interesting than the annual conversation about the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (WONHOF).
Imagine you’re a wrestler. How do you get into the WONHOF? First you have to be eligible, having 15 years of industry experience under your belt (or 10 years if you are over 35 – why, I don’t know). Then, you must be selected in a secret ballot cast by a panel of wrestlers, journalists, historians and ‘experts’ hand-picked by Meltzer himself. If you are chosen, you are added to the list of nominees from which WON subscribers cast their votes.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to stage 2. If you get 60% support on the ballots from your geographical region, you’re inducted. If you get less than 10% support, you are knocked off the list. If it’s anything in between, you’ll stay on the list for 15 years, at which point you must either get 50% of the vote from your region or be removed from the list.
At every stage, voters are supposed to make their choices using criteria including length of career, ability, significance and drawing power. These criteria, and indeed the whole selection and voting mechanism, were developed by Dave Meltzer.
The system seems designed to eliminate recency bias and ensure that inductees ‘stand the test of time’, privileging people with long careers. It considers the impact made by a performer on the industry as a whole, both in terms of drawing big houses and influencing other talents. Insisting on support from the candidate’s own geographical region, it tries to account for some level of cultural relativism and ensure that international markets are fairly represented.
All of these criteria are presented as checks and balances to ensure the resulting Hall of Fame is a ‘fair’, even ‘definitive’, reflection of the development of the wrestling industry. It’s a relatively complex system employed to create the ‘right’ result.
Except that’s bullshit, isn’t it?
Every single one of these criteria is individually problematic. Some of the most significant wrestlers in history had brutally short but highly influential careers; many weren’t great workers (whatever that means) but had unmatched ability in other respects, or vice versa. Then there’s drawing power.
With historic candidates, it’s very hard to compare what constituted a large house in 1970s Britain, for example, with 1980s Japan. And how do TV and streaming affect definitions of “being a draw”? In 20 years’ time, will there be anyone from the current generation of wrestlers who meets that criteria? Perhaps the biggest drawback of the whole system is convincing wrestling fans that they should care.
If the WONHOF purports to reflect fans’ views, it concentrates on the wrong things. Nobody cares that William Regal has, by his own admission, never drawn a penny when he has given many of us our favourite moments in wrestling. Equally, anyone who knows anything about British wrestling knows that Big Daddy was at its heart for years, despite the fact he wasn’t exactly a workhorse.
Meltzer asks fans to do a historian’s job, and to get the “right” result he has to set the terms of the debate by choosing criteria he deems important. There would be an overlap if you gave WON subscribers a free choice, but the inductees would not be the same.
In their own ways, both Halls of Fame claim to be the arbiters of greatness. Neither is really justified in doing so, but nor do they matter in the slightest because they have no bearing on how you and I respond to professional wrestling. All they can really tell us is how their architects seek to define ‘greatness’ in their own terms. At least WWE doesn’t pretend that its Hall of Fame belongs to anyone but itself.